By Harshada David Wagner
Through individuals’ responses to the plight of street children, this article explores the challenge before every spiritual seeker – how to make our insights and learning operational.
It is said that knowledge unapplied becomes a burden. I think this is especially true with spiritual knowledge. Most of our readers have been blessed with many things, including insight and knowledge from their spiritual practice. We have come to learn that there is a power inside of us that is available to our experience through spiritual practice and understanding. We have learned that there is a divine energy that flows through us and through everything supporting the universe. We have learned that love is the most powerful force and that human beings have the capacity to shape themselves and their world according to their actions and understanding.
The challenge for every seeker is just this: to make our understanding operational. It is fine to have blissful experiences in our meditation rooms or in our chanting halls, but what about on the way to work? As we encounter different aspects of life, our beliefs and inner experiences are put to test. How do we apply our understanding? How do we put our beliefs into action? What will we do with our love?
Let’s take an example of something our readers must have encountered to some degree – street children. They are the children who live and work in our cities’ streets and footpaths. We see them sleeping in railway stations; they approach us begging, often with babies in their arms, when our cars stop at red lights. We see them unattended, playing or sleeping by the roadside. We see them as they serve us our tea in restaurants.
India alone has an estimated 11 million children living on the street. Many of them are runaways who have left their homes in places like U.P. or Bihar and made their way to our cities. In a short while, they find themselves suffering from illness, malnutrition, horrendous work conditions, and forced into innumerable hells. They are bright, beautiful, innocent, and there they are for us to see every day.
In this article, we will look at how different individuals were moved to address this particular aspect of life – each in their own way and according to their own means.
Salaam Baalak Trust
Mira Nair was a documentary filmmaker when she decided to embark on a new project. She, along with her team, was working in Mumbai with a group of street children, speaking with them about their experiences on the streets and in the train stations, bazaars and red-light districts where many of them lived. Out of this emerged a fictional screenplay that was a composite of several of the kids’ lives. Many of the children were then enrolled in an acting workshop to help them learn how to be on camera and speak lines from scripts. The kids were engaged and honored – they blossomed in the workshop and were soon ready for filming. The film that emerged from this project in 1988, Salaam Bombay, is a critically acclaimed account of children’s life on the streets of Mumbai. It is stunningly beautiful and gut-wrenchingly sad at the same time. It exposed audiences to a reality that teems beneath the surface of too many cities around the world.
After the film was released, Mira Nair along with the film’s co-writer Sooni Taraporevala, formed the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO with a mission to care for and rehabilitate street children. After the children who acted in the film were successfully rehabilitated, the Trust expanded to provide support for street and working children in Mumbai, Bhubaneshwar and Delhi. The trust began with three staff members and 25 children. Today, 16 years later, there are 83 staff members and over 3,000 children who use the services of this organization.
I visited Salaam Baalak Trust in Delhi earlier this year. What I found was a well-run organization doing amazing work. Their facility is positioned near the central railway station in Delhi, an important location since most urban street kids arrive by train. The train station itself, along with the warren of drainage pipes underneath, is home to hundreds of kids. According to the Trust’s Dr P.N. Misra, Salaam Baalak workers have approximately 15 minutes from the time a child arrives at the station before he or she is picked up by other children, pimps, sweatshop owners, or the police.
When the kids do get into street life, it is nearly impossible to rehabilitate them. Once they’ve gotten a taste of independence and freedom, they don’t want to come into the rehabilitation system or go home. Most street kids are sexually molested and subjected to violence and abuse. Salaam Baalak Trust provides them with food, shelter, education and attempts to reunite them with their families when possible. It also staffs drop-in centers for working street kids. Generations of children have now grown up in Saalam Baalak. Many have become Trust staff themselves, and many others have gone on to live happy productive lives. While I was there, it kept occurring to me – all this came about through art. All this came about because of the loving hearts in a group of artists and filmmakers who were willing to put their beliefs into action.
Home of Love
During that same visit, I came to know about a couple in Mumbai named Solomon and Sunita Missal. Solomon was employed with the charity World Vision, working with poor and homeless people when he was called on to help a dying man from his place on the pavement to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The man, whose name was Sunder, was accompanied by his son Shaktivel. On the way to the mission, Sunder died in Solomon’s arms.
Solomon then decided that he couldn’t just keep walking past the kids on the train platform. Beginning with Shaktivel, Solomon and Sunita began to befriend and then adopt kids into their household. Today they have 10 boys ranging in age from six to 16 living in their home as their sons. They named their house the ‘Home of Love’. Today the Home of Love is a registered charity – supplementing Solomon’s income with donations to help buy food and basics for the boys. The Missals continue to reach out to other children with the aim of reuniting them with their parents or relatives.
The most recent addition to the Home of Love is a little girl – Sunita and Solomon’s first non-adopted child. The 13 people in the Home of Love are examples of people, young and old, stepping forward and being the light for others.
‘Bring the Puppet’
A colleague of mine was teaching in New Delhi some years ago. Every day he was driven in a private car to his lecture. The route took him through a crowded intersection where, every day, his car was assailed by a dozen thin, dirty street kids. The kids would thrust rolled newspapers into the car and beg for money. My friend didn’t want to give them money, for he didn’t want to reinforce their practice of begging, but he also didn’t know what else to do. Soon, he began to roll up the car’s windows as he neared the intersection, but it didn’t feel right to him. He said it felt like he was allowing ice to come over his heart to prevent him from feeling the complex emotions that arose when he saw the children.
After a couple of weeks, he decided to take action. Before he set out, he meditated and prayed about the kids. He prayed for a solution that would benefit the kids and also allow him to be who he truly was. In the silence of his prayer he heard an answer, ‘Bring the puppet.’ He knew immediately what the words meant – weeks before, someone had given him a cat puppet as a gift.
The next morning, as he made his way to the intersection, he kept the windows down and readied the puppet. When the car stopped, the usual kids came up and thrust their rolled papers through the window. Without thinking, my friend used the puppet to snatch away a newspaper and whack one of the kids on the head. All the children froze – the kid who was whacked let out a scream, and suddenly there was mayhem. Kids were putting their papers in every window and the cat was snatching them away. More kids came and joined in the fun, and were all yelling and laughing. This scene was repeated every day for the next three months. Every morning, the kids would recognize the car with the crazy cat and would attack it from all sides. On the final morning, as my friend was driven to the airport, there was a final cat-vs-kids session. They had no way of knowing he was leaving – he spoke no Hindi, they spoke very little English. Before the car could pull away, they surrounded it and began chanting in English, ‘We love you, we love you, we love you.’
There is one more individual I want to acknowledge here – you, the reader. How do you relate to this problem? Here we are, evolved, compassionate, enlightened people. Many of us are faced with these kids nearly every day. What do we do?
It may or may not be in our means to start an NGO or take kids into our homes. It may or may not be in our means to give money or offer food or do anything on the outside to improve the situation. The question for us, as yogis and sadhakas and seekers of the truth, is: what can we do?
Dharma of Giving
Like so many Sanskrit words, ‘dharma’ is wonderful; full of possibility and meaning. Take a moment now to allow the word to wash over your mind and heart. Dharma…
What does the word evoke for you? Dharma can mean religion, personal duty, or the natural law of the universe. For us as seekers, dharma is like the Chinese Tao. It is a principle that pervades and supports everything. It is a Truth that links us all and also assigns to us the actions and roles that are in harmony with that principle. Dharma is duty, for sure, but not an imposed duty or one born of obligation or shame. Dharma, in this highest sense, is a harmonious co-participation between the elements and objects of our universe. It is the dharma of water to flow downwards; it is the dharma of the sun to provide light and warmth. It is the dharma of a thorn bush to be sharp and the dharma of a fruit tree to give fruit. So what, then, is our dharma as good people?
There are many answers on the outside about this, but the answer that we’re looking for will not come so easily. Gurus, politicians, pundits, activists, religions and family members can all offer myriad suggestions about your dharma, but for us as seekers it is more subtle than that. Each person’s dharma is individual. It is up to us to discover what our individual dharma is and how the great Dharma can manifest through us. Whether we have realised it or not, each of us has a completely unique potential that we are living out day by day, a gift that we carry and that only we can express.
What we do or don’t do in the world is up to our dharma – our high and natural expression of who and what we are. When we come into contact with the world, our dharma has a chance to express itself according to the relationships it forms with other dharmas and other roles. The more complicated the relationship or the more difficult, the harder it can be to discern what our appropriate behaviour should be.
When we encounter street kids, for instance, there are many complicated issues that can blur the question of our dharma. We may feel it is not our fault that they are on the street. They may be engaged in behavior like begging or drug-taking that we disapprove of.
We may find it upsetting to see such innocent beings suffer. We may feel completely overwhelmed by the problem and helpless in its face. Nonetheless, there is a relationship there. Whether we like it or not, if that child comes into our awareness, we have to deal with it in one way or another.
The question then becomes – what is our dharma, what is our highest nature and how can we express it when we’re there with a suffering child? This is a question for deep contemplation. Many readers of Life Positive practice different forms of contemplation and self-inquiry. If you have a type of contemplation that works for you, try bringing the question to your practice. Or you can try this:
o Find a quiet spot and sit down.
o Take some time to consider street children.
o Let your heart feel whatever it may – don’t judge.
o Relax and settle your attention onto your breath for a few rounds.
o When your mind begins to still, ask yourself: what can I give to a child?
o Relax into silence after asking and open your awareness to possibility. Be open to whatever answer comes, even if it is only an image or a feeling.
o Capture your insight. If you keep a journal, write your insights there. If no particular answer came during the exercise, try again later. Be ready, as an answer may come at any time.
For some of us, this question may lead us to action. We might make a donation to an organization helping street kids, or buy a bottle of milk for a child. This contemplation may awaken a wish to do something ‘big'; we may decide to dedicate some time and energy to address the problem in a concrete way. For others, this contemplation may simply inspire a change in the inner stance. We may decide to offer a silent blessing as we pass a child, or smile and give an encouraging word. We may decide to dedicate the merit of our practices to the children or pray for them when we’re alone. The point is, as yogis and seekers of the truth, we can’t just shut down. There is always something we can do. We have to at least consider our possibilities; listen for the voice of our hearts and follow that.
When we become committed to bringing our love and the power of our sadhana out into our actions, a change takes place; everyone benefits. Each of us has something to give, not only to children on the street but to every situation big and small. There is no other you. There will never be anyone else who can share your gifts with the world. Your dharma is there in you waiting to express itself. The rest is up to you.
David Harshada Wagner is the founding director of Banyan Education, a New York-based organization with the mission to teach the art of sitting meditation and help people to cultivate inner life.
Contact: Saalam Baalak Trust, email: firstname.lastname@example.org;
Solomon Missal or Home of Love,
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